Punks' classic call for unity echoes around the hall

But for observers, the sound of Sham 69's youth anthem "If the Kids Are United" ricocheting off the walls of the Brighton Centre proved a surprising and somewhat disturbing choice for the Prime Minister's overture.

Delegates casting their minds back to its release in 1978 might recall Surrey's most celebrated skinheads as unlikely poster boys for third-term New Labour. They might even consider them suitable candidates for one of Mr Blair's controversial Asbos - a theme to which he was to return with some aplomb during his conference speech.

After all, only last month, Jimmy Pursey, the band's snake-hipped front man, now aged 50, was dragged off his former punk sparring partner John Lydon (aka Rotten) by armed police during a brawl outside the United States embassy in London.

Back at the height of punk, in the dying days of the Callaghan government, Sham 69 were hailed as the true successors to the Sex Pistols. Their flurry of punchy, frenetic hits between 1977 and 1980 included "Borstal Breakout", "Hurry Up Harry" and "Hersham Boys" and espoused the timeless virtues of going down the pub, getting in a fight and getting a girl.

It is a philosophy skilfully encapsulated in the B-side to "Kids", which reached number nine in the singles charts. In "Sunday Morning Nightmare", Pursey bemoans the lot of a young man on the eve of the Thatcher era. "I've been drinking too many pints of lager, I've been getting into too many bleedin' fights, I came home with sick all down me trousers, I've got lovebites all around me neck," he sang. It is enough to give Mr Blair and the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, collective nightmares.

In his conference speech, the Prime Minister - whose university band Ugly Rumours was the kind of long-haired college group punk was reacting against - was ruminating on just such "anti-social behaviour". It was caused, he said, by the "loosening of the bonds of cohesion".

According to Pursey yesterday, Sham and their ilk were not guilty of helping to cut those ties.

Pursey, who admitted to being surprised at the reprise of the 27-year-old hit, is a Blairite through and through. "I was bowled over. When the man from the BBC commented that he was taken aback by it, it was like the moment when Thatcher resigned and everyone said they couldn't believe it."

Pursey said the message behind the song was critical for the country at the moment. "We have got to unite Brown and Blair together. He could be one of the best prime ministers this country has ever produced," said the singer who once appeared on Top of the Pops holding a plastic water pistol to his head.

But there were still aspects of Britain that rankled. Sylvia Hardy, he said, should not have been jailed for not paying a portion of her council tax. And the country had become "too much of a grammar school, Middle England thing". "'If the Kids are United' has the right message. This isn't the best place in the world, but it isn't the worst place either. The only way to change things is through education."

But the Labour Government - and Mr Blair and Mr Brown in particular - could do well to learn some other lessons from Sham 69. The band members got together at the tender age of 17, and despite having not troubled the charts in nearly three decades, the old school friends remain firmly together. They will be performing at the Rock Café at Stourbridge in the West Midlands on Friday.

Who said punk was dead?

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